I had been vaguely aware of Estonia’s initiative e-Estonia, in which people from around the world could sign up for a sort of e-citizenship for this most technologically advanced country of not just the Baltics, but maybe the world. But at the time, you had to pick up the actual ID in Estonia, which seemed slightly over the top (for now).
Fast forward to today, when I stumbled over Ben Hammersley‘s WIRED article about e-Estonia and learned that the application process now works completely online and a trip to our local Estonian embassy (a mere 20min or so by bike or subway away) now does the trick.
e-Estonia is not, of course, an actual citizenship, even though for many intents and purposes it does provide a surprisingly large number of services that traditionally were tied to residency of a nationstate.
For now, e-Estonia allows things like opening a bank account in Estonia, to sign up an international business based in Estonia, and to handle online authorization (digital signatures). In other words, they take a lot of services from the physical to the web (which most countries do these days, only Estonia does them much better), and then they take it to the next level by allowing (in tech speak) to use Estonia as a backend for these transactions so you don’t have to wait for your own country to catch up to the user/citizen expectations of the 21st century.
The whole online application process, from pulling up the website to filling out my personal details to paying the processing fees online took a total time of 7:28min:
That’s right: Just over seven minutes, and that includes all the dropdown menus for date-of-birth, passwort expiration dates, credit card and contact details. Now I wait for a month for the Estonian government to do a background check and ping me once the thing is ready to pick up, and that’s it. Super simple, super smooth, no more expensive than any other type of government ID processing fees.
To put this in context: I’m ranting a little because I had a number of very annoying, stressful, slow interactions with German bureaucracy recently, and because I know a large number of people who build these services in a much more pleasant way for the UK and US government through their roles at the UK’s Government Digital Services (GDS) and their US counterpart, USDS. So to me, avoiding German “digital services” in favor of actual, smoothly run, well thought out Estonian location-independent digital service sounds incredibly alluring.
Keeping all that in mind I have no doubt that when Ben Hammersley, in his WIRED piece, quotes a representative of e-Estonia about their relation to other governments, that representative mentally includes Germany in the list of countries that are so far behind that even talking to them is kinda-sorta pointless because (I assume) it’d be like a 21st century person trying to discuss space travel with a 12th century person – you’d have to start from such first principles that it’s hardly worth bothering:
The culmination of these systems makes for awkward conversation with members of certain foreign governments. Strikingly young, dressed like a man who has borrowed a suit before visiting his in-laws for the first time, and sitting behind a chipped table that wouldn’t make it into the caretaker’s office in a western European capital, one Estonian official, who didn’t want to be named, reveals that e-Estonia has a list of foreign delegations they don’t bother to have meetings with any more. These countries, he says, are so far behind in their thinking that time spent with them is too dull to bear. They just stare at us, he says.
In recent discussions with GDS and USDS people and the former CIO of Puerto Rico I realized once more that Germany (to the best of my knowledge) doesn’t even have a Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Chief Technology Officer (CTO), or if these roles exist I wasn’t able to find any information about it. So if anyone in the German government reads this, I’ll be happy to help find someone for the job, or to help define these roles. Luckily, now there are very capable teams in at least three countries – UK, US, Estonia – who have great people and are very helpful, sharing and caring people.
Update: It took 9 days until my application was approved and e-residence granted – despite the fact that the photo I had initially submitted didn’t meet the requirements and I had to re-submit it. Thoroughly impressed!
Update 26 August: After 21 days total my new Digital Identity Card has arrived in the Estonia Embassy in Berlin, ready for pick-up.